Talking marathonsA succession of gasbags trying to hoodwink their fellow partymen and the nation in turn.
For the past few weeks, we have been forced to partake of news fare that has consisted mainly of the goings-on at political party conventions. Nepal must be really starved for news to be fed with blow-by-blow accounts of everything that has been taking place at these gatherings. As a result, there was no escaping the dreary spectacle of our politicians going on and on about what they believe is best for the country even if our first instinct is to stifle a yawn just at the prospect of a succession of gasbags trying to hoodwink their fellow partymen and the nation in turn.
Despite the obvious cynicism one feels, the very fact that the political parties underwent an internal democratic exercise says something about the so-far continued health of our polity. The conventions happened because the parties were in danger of running foul of the constitutional requirement of electing a new central committee every five years. And the legal requirement was duly fulfilled even though in at least one case, the CPN-UML’s, it was more for effect than actual democracy at work.
Arguably, the most fun part over this period came when, at the Nepali Congress meet, the newly elected chairperson of the monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Rajendra Lingden, spoke the homely truth that the ordinary citizen views politicians as crooks. He got roundly hammered by the supremos of the UML and the Maoist Centre who cast his observation as an attempt to delegitimise politicians in general while implying the relevance of a royal presence in Nepali politics. The high point was the Maoist Centre chairperson, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, asking rhetorically if people do consider politicians to be crooked. He must have presumed that the reply from a bunch of political party workers would have been different, but the resounding "yeah" from the audience was quite a put-down of politicians by politicians themselves.
All said and done though, one has to hand it to our politicians that despite all their differences, they are still able to retain amicable relations with one another. One of the Indian invitees to the UML convention was pleasantly surprised to actually pass comment on that aspect of our politics. Thus, for all the acrimony caused by the split in the erstwhile Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the UML, and the war of words that periodically each has waged on the other, the sight of politicians of all hues accepting invitations to speak at each other’s conventions is hopefully a tradition that will continue into the future. Even if not fully acknowledged as such, this ability to look beyond ideological differences surely has helped our country steer through many a tense juncture.
Hold of the gerontocrats
Perhaps the most unexpected development came with the ouster of Kamal Thapa as head of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party. Not that there is really much to look forward to with one champion of retrogression being replaced by another, but at least it stirred things up a bit. It also served as a precursor for a group of Young Turks to get elected to high offices in the Nepali Congress, lending an air of expectation from the grand old party.
Generally though, the conventions served to consolidate the grasp of most of the party bosses over the rank and file. The hold of the gerontocracy over our political parties is perhaps the main reason why there was very little excitement of what was on offer to the country. The most pithy statement I have read on the ongoing Maoist convention came from one of their own. Lokendra Bista Magar was a top Maoist leader from Rukum and even served as a minister during one of their stints in government. Frustrated by politics, he quit the party some years ago and is now involved in a somewhat successful horticulture business in Dang. In his words: "Politics has become very difficult, conspiratorial and mysterious. The party cadre never know what the top leaders of the party do while huddling in a dark corner. They then come out and declare what they have decided among themselves. Hearing that we wonder whether what we are hearing is actually what they are saying. That is how surprised one gets."
Even though Magar was referring to the Maoists, this state of affairs is equally true for all the parties. General deliberations on where any party is headed are either non-existent or are at most a sham. With the focus so much on who was getting elected to what position, news from the conventions did not deal much with political programmes. Not that it would have mattered much since the tendency among our politicians is to not follow up on what they say. There were documents bandied around, but we all know these mean nothing unless the leadership, or rather the leader, is serious about implementing them. Sadly, most of these written commitments have little to do with the country’s reality, and are mostly hopelessly aspirational to the point of being unworkable.
It is a sorry commentary on the state of affairs that even the Young Turks of the Congress party are not so young anymore. Vice-Chairperson Dhan Raj Gurung is in his mid-50s, and the general secretary duo of Bishwo Prakash Sharma and Gagan Thapa are past 50 and 45, respectively. The only top leader from the "new generation", Lingden, himself is close to retirement age. For the sake of comparison, it is worth noting that around the same time, 41-year-old Kiril Petkov was elected prime minister of Bulgaria while further away, in Chile, Gabriel Boric, 35, was voted into the presidential office.
We can only hope that with the ageing, new generation coming into prominence in the Nepali Congress and other parties as well, things will begin to shift over time. The next conventions are five years hence, but if this group is able to play their cards well and are able to initiate some kind of transformation within their parties, that will be a start. They all know Nepalis have invested a lot of trust in them. And they also know very well that the current state of politics is not one that is conducive either to their political careers or for the country as a whole. The only fear is that as they themselves become part of the party establishments, they may pick up the ways of their predecessors that have led us to where we are now.